Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz

Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz

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Hermann von Helmholtz Issues "Physiological Optics", Over 11 Years

1856 to 1867
Title page of Hermann von Helmholtz

Title page of Hermann von Helmholtz's Handbuch der physiologischen Optik. Please click on link to view and resize entire page.

German physician, physicist, physiologist, and inventor Hermann von Helmholtz published his Handbuch der physiologischen Optik in 6 parts, as issued in Leipzig by the Allgemeine Encyklopädie der Physik over the 11 years between 1856-1867. Once all six parts, or Lieferungs, were published subscribers could have the book bound, but in this case each part contained a portion of at least one other work by a different author in the Encykopädie, as well as a portion of Helmholtz's book, so in order to have Helmoltz's book bound in coherent way it was necessary to take each of the six parts or fascicules apart to separate out the portions of Helmholtz's book. Probably for this reason only one copy seems to have survived in the original six parts. This copy, formerly in the library of Harrison D. Horblit, passed through my hands in 2011.

The Lieferungen containing Helmholtz’s Handbuch are as follows:

Erste Lieferung (first fascicle), 1856: Signatures 1-12, plates 1-3

Siebente Lieferung (seventh fascicle), 1860: Signatures 13-21, plates 4-5 Achte Lieferung (eighth fascicle), 1860: Signatures 22-27

Siebzehnte Lieferung (seventeenth fascicle), 1866: Signatures 28-32 Achtzehnte Lieferung (eighteenth fascicle), 1866: Signatures 33-41, plate 6 Neunzehnte Lieferung (nineteenth fascicle), 1867: Signatures 42-56, plus titles and preliminaries, plates 7-11

The title-page of the Handbuch in the nineteenth fascicle is dated 1867 (as it is in the book-form version), but Helmholtz noted in his preface to the work that “Die erste Abteilung des vorliegenden Handbuches ist schon im Jahre 1856 erschienen, die zweite 1860, die dritte teils Anfang, teils Ende 1866” (The first section of this manual was published in 1856, the second in 1860, the beginning of the third part in early and late 1866). Helmholtz explained the long delay in finishing the work as being due to both external circumstances (two changes of residence and the pressures of other scientific work) and internal reasons.

Helmholtz inaugurated the science of physiological optics in 1851 with his invention of the ophthamoscope, and his Handbuch der physiologischen Optik incorporates all of the research in this subject since that time. “Volume I, which appeared in 1856, contained a detailed treatment of the dioptrics of the eye . . . In it Helmholtz treated the various imperfections of the lens system and announced the result that the visual axis of the eye does not correspond to its optical axis. Volume I also elaborated Helmholtz’s theory of accommodation and his invention of the ophthalmometer, both announced in 1855. In Volume II Helmholtz introduced [Thomas] Young’s theory [of color vision], calling it a special application of Johannes Müller’s law of specific nerve energies. He also dealt with the complex phenomena of irradiation, afterimages and contrast, which had dominated the interest of German physiologists since Goethe’s Farbehlehre” (Dictionary of Scientific Biography).

Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) No. 1046.

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